I recently received an email from someone considering entering a career as a VC. I had suggested he watch Bill Gross’s Ted Talk on why ventures fail. According to Bill’s research the number one reason startups fail is poor market timing. Or I guess one could call this poor venture/timing fit, though Bill didn’t. My friend watched the video, then asked if I knew of any frameworks that would help identify whether the timing of a new technology/venture was right or not? I immediately thought of Alan Kay’s two videos that were part of the Startup School’s curriculum, which I had watched recently.
One of the most enjoyable days of my career was spent in the company of Alan Kay and Nicholas Negroponte, two of my heroes, as wandered around a technology conference together.
In this video on YouTube entitled How to invent the Future I, Alan Kay starts telling stories about another hero, the hockey superstar Wayne Gretsky. I use one of these stories often with new founders. (These stories starts about minute 54.21 in the video.)
As Alan says:,
Wayne Gretsky, was the greatest hockey player who ever lived. He was just a little guy, who tried to avoid fights. They asked him why he took so many shots on goal. He said, You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. He scored more goals than anyone in history by a thousand. So the fact that his percentage of misses was also high was irrelevant. And they asked him why he was better than anybody else and he said, “A good hockey player goes to where the puck is, a great on goes to where the puck is going to be.” He looked at the entire configuration, saw where the future was going to be, and went to that place.
So here are his steps for inventing the future as it applies to technology startups:
- Start with a favorable intuition. For Alan it was the tablet, later known as the Dynabook.
- You identify a favorable exponential like Moore’s Law.
- You take the favorable intuition out 30 years. Can we say “it would be ridiculous if we didn’t have this? Yes!”
- Bring intuition back to the 10 – 15 year point. “Can something be done if you pour enough money into it? Yes!”
- Make a bunch of high cost prototypes and run a bunch of experiments. You then optimize the code. His example of this is Microsoft Word.
How to escape the present? Have a glimmer of an idea and take it so far out. Then you just bring it back. So instead of innovating out from the present what you want to do is invent the future from the future. Go out and live in the future and bring the future back. So instead of moving forward from here, where everything is confusing and the present looks like reality, we want to go out to the future and bring it back.
I strongly recommend you not only watch the entire video but also How to invent the Future II (where the last sentence of the above quote comes from).
Watching these videos reminded me of a chat I had with an Apple engineer many decades ago. He must have heard Alan Kay talk about how to invent the future because he told me, “If you can imagine it, we can build it. It’s just a matter of time.”
It’s hard for me to add much to a talk by Alan Kay, so I won’t try. Too many startups are either just copies of existing companies or attempts to apply one company’s success formula to another market, witness the prevalence of the “Uber for X” in founders’ pitches.
Optimizing the present won’t create a new market. It may create a new product. And as Alan Kay says elsewhere, it’s by creating a new market that you can have a mega success. Only imagining the future and bringing it back will work. So what are you waiting for? Get out of the present and into the future now!